CHICAGO — For Minnesota senior quarterback MarQueis Gray, the turning point last season came after a fumble in the second quarter of a scoreless game.
It was the second quarter of the Gophers’ rivalry game against Iowa in October, and Duane Bennett had just fumbled the ball. By that point in the fall, the Gophers were 1-6 and on their way to yet another disappointing season.
Aside from the coveted Floyd of Rosedale trophy, not much was at stake in that game at TCF Bank Stadium.
Gray didn’t see it that way and instead used that sequence as an opportunity for change.
“They were missing field goals, we were going three and out, turning the ball over, and I felt like it was the right moment to do it,” the quarterback said.
Gray sat his team down on the sideline and delivered the thorough message that enough was enough.
“I feel like I had to step up that Iowa game,” he said.
He did. Minnesota went on to win the game 22-21 after trailing by 11 points in the fourth quarter.
Gray led the team with 193 yards and a touchdown through the air and 62 yards and another touchdown on the ground.
That was the game offensive lineman Ed Olson and linebacker Keanon Cooper said they saw the proverbial leadership switch flip in Gray.
He had always been a leader, but something was different after that. Gray hasn’t looked back since.
“Following that game, you can kind of say we reached that next level for the rest of the season,” Cooper said.
Minnesota lost three of its last four games to finish 3-9, but it was much more competitive in that span.
After last year’s dreadful record, Gray has continued his growth as a leader into the offseason.
He said Friday at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago that he has started by becoming more of a vocal leader on and off the field.
“I’m not the one that usually talks,” Gray said. “I’m just more of the one that leads by doing it. That’s one of the things I have to work on … and [my teammates] know I can do it, so I just have to keep doing it.”
He has taken control of the football team since the season ended and has essentially been the head coach of the offseason, Olson said.
Gray’s demeanor as a soft-spoken guy who doesn’t always like to speak up is a trait that Olson said benefits him as a leader.
“He’s a lead-by-example guy, but when he has to he can become vocal as well,” Olson said. “I think that’s what makes him such a good quality leader. When he yells at someone … everyone knows he’s serious.”
While Gray is often seen as a figurehead of the program as the quarterback, he doesn’t take credit as the sole leader on his team.
Cooper was thrust into a leadership role in April after the tragic death of teammate Gary Tinsley.
Cooper was the first person who found Tinsley motionless on the floor of his dorm room.
As a result, he was the one the media turned to for questions and the one his teammates turned to for comfort.
“He’s done better than most any adult that I’ve ever seen,” head coach Jerry Kill said. “He’s gone through a tremendous loss like all of us have … and when he spoke at Gary’s funeral he did a tremendous job and delivered a tremendous message. I think that’s why there’s no question he has so much respect on the team.”
Cooper said he struggled throughout the process but that he just tried to stay composed amid the heartbreak.
“Just seeing that situation, my teammates embraced me and they kind of pushed me toward that leadership role,” he said.
Cooper has taken full grasp on that role but said he has seen a change in culture across the team.
“I know around here there’s been a lack in leadership since I’ve been here,” Cooper said. “That’s not a knock on the guys that were here before me, but it’s just been a lot more guys choosing to step up.”
Cooper mentioned linebacker Mike Rallis, defensive back Troy Stoudermire and defensive end Ra’Shede Hageman as players who have stepped up on defense this offseason.
Similar to Gray, Cooper said he has tried to develop into more of a vocal leader throughout the process.
Gray cited both Olson and Zach Mottla as players who will need to lead a youthful offensive line core left without a senior lineman this season.
Olson said Friday that he has approached this chance to lead with open arms but that he also struggles to be vocal at times.
“It’s a good experience to be a leader right now, and it’s teaching me a lot of new things. I’m not a big talker, but if I have to I’ll get after them,” he said. “I like to lead by example and just have people follow me.”
Regardless of the other forms of leadership on the team, it all starts with Gray, and the team will go as he does.
“I look for him to be a guy that could really show up to have a break out year, and we need him to,” Kill said.
Minnesota will open its season Aug. 30 against the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.